Night moves

Lots of love, laughs and lessons mark the career of veteran MTA driver J.B. Berry

By Carl Kozlowski 02/14/2008

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"There is something interesting about wearing the name of where you work on your shirt or jacket for more than 20 years. The rewards of this kind of life, I think, tip the scales of personal growth rather than just expanding your financial worth. I mean who wouldn't learn compassion from chatting with a total stranger explaining how he just got out of jail, has no money, and is just trying to get home to his family? Who wouldn't think about human nature when one knows the customer that just got on the bus will be spending Thanksgiving Day riding the bus alone? To drive a bus in such a city as Los Angeles is to be on the front lines of American life. Such a person is James Berry."  - Essay by Tony Dill, a regular rider of the Metro 180

Driving an overnight bus route in LA has to be one of the most thankless jobs in the city. Night after night, MTA's drivers come face to face with some of the strangest, saddest, drunkest and craziest people imaginable. These passengers will often try to sneak onboard for free or a "reduced rate," and get belligerent if a driver insists on their paying a full fare.

Toss this turbulent mix of humanity together on a giant vehicle that takes the most convoluted route imaginable to their destination and most who are able to drive a car will steer clear of ever hopping onboard a bus.

Most MTA drivers seem to just silently endure the endless loops that their routes take them on in the dead of night, as if tuning out the strangeness will make it all disappear and enable them to cross off another day on the calendar of their lives.

Yet James "J.B." Berry is the rare exception: A driver who has seen every imaginable kind of behavior in more than two decades behind the wheel of some of the wildest routes in the city.

But instead of walling himself off from his passengers, J.B. chose to become the MTA's most unlikely goodwill ambassador: a 57-year-old, African-American giant of a man whose boisterous personality can bring a smile to the saddest of souls and turn an otherwise lonely ride through the night into a party on wheels.

 J.B. switched his route nearly a year ago to drive a route from El Monte to downtown LA, mainly because its start and end points were closer to his home in San Bernardino. That's a huge savings in both gas money and time in his nightly commute to work.

What he didn't count on was how quiet that route would be - he estimates he has an average of four riders aboard at any one time - and how much he'd miss his regular riders from the 180 route, especially a core group of about a dozen mostly African-American men whose outrageous rapport and antics led to them calling their group "The Loco 180."

Last Saturday night, after nearly six months of lobbying between the MTA and the bus drivers' union, J.B. took the wheel of the 180 for one last Saturday night run that reunited him with his biggest fans for an adventurous run that included a Hooters run for hot wings, an unscheduled stop at 7-Eleven for snacks and Slurpees, and a whole lot of laughter.

"I've always been boisterous, but Hollywood was special because I'd develop friendships with guys there, making my night go faster as we talked about everything from politics to sex, rock and roll and racial issues," J.B. explains. "On the 180 line, all the homeless people that I come in contact with are not all alcoholics and addicts. They're people who have fallen on hard times and don't know how to get out. I think with a little encouragement, they could improve their condition. And a lot of them choose to come onboard each night and hang because it's the one place they feel accepted."

I can vouch for that strange sense of belonging. I met J.B. just more than two years ago, when he took over the 180 route between Pasadena and Hollywood. Back then, I had a severe sleep disorder that would often result in my passing out immediately on the bus ride home. I'd ask him or other drivers to yell out my stop and make sure that I got off at the right place.

J.B. told me sit behind him that first night - a decision that he quickly came to regret as I unleashed a series of snores and snorts that sounded like a buffalo stampede (Editor's note: Kind of like at work).

By the time I got to my Pasadena stop, he was yelling full-force for me to get off the bus, while the Loco 180 guys exploded with laughter.

"Wake up! Wake up! It's your stop! Man, you snore like a wounded animal!" J.B. yelled before unleashing guttural heaves of laughter. As I came to and stumbled off the bus in shame, I was surrounded by a wall of whooping. When I was forced to board again a night later, J.B. was ready for me.

"Oh, HELL no!" he laughed. "You're gettin' on the back of the bus! I can't have you sitting right behind me, sounding like a dying animal again!"

So I walked with a sense of shock to the back of the bus, like a modern-day Rosa Parks judged by the sound of my snoring rather than the content of my character. And little did I know that this night began my initiation into the Loco 180s, as it marked the first night in a week of shameless pranks played on me by the rest of the gang.

One night everyone took turns balancing coins on my face as my head tilted back in full snore; they placed bets on who would finally cause me to jolt awake. Another night, I snapped awake after they dangled snack foods and sandwiches under my nose (Editor's note: Kind of like at work).

But once I realized the joking was all in good fun and I explained to J.B. that I had a serious medical condition, I became fully accepted into the club and started to receive an education in life - from the grand to the gritty - that I will never forget.

"J.B.'s a lot friendlier than most drivers, and it's nice to see how he deals with people on a regular basis." says Ray Martin, a cameraman for ESPN and a fully vested Loco 180 member. "Some people have a bad day and he'd cheer them up. Some people would be all pissed off due to lousy day, he'd cheer them up too. Some would be over-the-top angry, he'd calm them down. I've been driving again since he left. But I heard he was back tonight so I had to come."

Indeed, Martin wasn't the only person happy to see J.B. back on the route. At nearly every stop over the course of his 8 1/2-hour shift from 8:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., people would burst into laughter, hugs, shrieks and smiles. And as he double-parked his bus in front of the 7-Eleven in Hollywood on Cahuenga Boulevard for a group mission for Slurpees, trading catcalls with young women dressed to party as he jokingly tried to talk them into "upgrading" from their limo to his bus, J.B.'s joy was obvious too.

But the laughter didn't always come so easily for this St. Louis native. In fact, while he recalls a happy and stable Midwestern upbringing, his initiation into Los Angeles was downright difficult.

"I had a good life growing up. I had my mother and father, both sets of grandparents all together, and they taught me how to respect my fellow man and love my fellow woman and how to always be a strong man," J.B. recalls. "My father and mother passed away when I was an adult; things just weren't going right in St Louis, and I'd outgrown it. I came out to California for a new beginning, a new start, and wound up on the streets for a couple of months. That's why I understand about homeless people finding nowhere to go and finding a comfort zone someplace like my bus."

J.B. came to the MTA in 1986 after working as a security guard and then a driver for a garment-industry company. His ex-wife also worked for the MTA and passed him an application. He started on the 210 route down Crenshaw Boulevard before working the Vermont Avenue and Slauson Avenue lines.

But it wasn't until he landed the 180 line in 2005 that J.B. really formed a bond with his riders. It was on that colorful route, filled with Hollywood dreamers past and present, that he came to know people with nicknames like Spaghetti, Black Fred and Cat Woman. He got punched one night when he turned a non-paying customer away, yet inspired such loyalty that the Loco 180 members jumped off, caught the thug and knocked him around a bit until the cops came.

He also recalls countless nights during the holiday season when his riders would bring him cookies, treats and leftovers from holiday parties - which he'd then pass along to those less fortunate. He survived a night when a guy he called Teeth - whom the Loco 180 members recall as having ridiculously large teeth that stuck out from behind his lips like those of a crocodile - made the whole bus burst into laughter with his oddball looks, stranger lisp and the fact that J.B. was absolutely terrified that the guy was trying to bite his neck.

J.B. went through a divorce along the way, even as he continues to raise his teenage daughter, and he found romance anew with a cute younger driver who happened to stop her bus each night at the same break spot and found herself worn down by his charms.

One particularly memorable night, the laughter got so crazy that he had to pull the bus over for a team of paramedics. "I'll never forget that one," J.B. recalls with yet another body-shaking wave of laughter. "This one man just started laughing so hard that he couldn't breathe and he wound up begging me to call 911. It turns out he had laughed his way straight into a heart attack. He was stabilized by the paramedics and wound up getting taken away OK - but he started laughing again while they rolled him off, saying ‘You're killing me!'"

It's easy for J.B. to remember these moments, thanks not only to his own gifted memory but because of Tony Dill, a former NBC News employee who became a Loco 180 member and served as the unofficial historian of the group. His series of writings captured the

full range of emotions and experiences that come with riding night after night.

"I'm from the East Coast. I started writing the stories because they seemed like the kind of things that should be put on paper and they were interesting, unique tales," explains Dill. "People have an issue about Los Angeles, about how people don't meet because we're in cars, and yet here we are, a couple dozen people late at night sharing all kinds of experiences. You run into people who are smelly and just in an unfortunate condition. But mostly it was a lot of fun - so much laughing going on that I can't imagine what the other people on the bus thought. It was a rolling block party almost."

That party vibe was back in full force Saturday night, including a stop for hot wings, a pit stop bathroom break in the bushes of a Rite-Aid, a raucous roundelay of trash-talking insults and jokes, and most of all genuine happiness to see a rare individual back on the scene of his greatest exploits.

As he roared down Los Feliz Boulevard on his last Hollywood-bound run of the night, J.B. offered one of the many life lessons he's learned through his job.

"I understand how they feel. If you can show one ounce of kindness to a person who's down on their luck, that might make their night or day," J.B. sums up. "That kindness spreads. I have helped humanity out in that way. I've been there before on the streets, so I know how you feel. You've got to be kind to people because kindness comes back to you. My life is very, very good. I'm not the richest guy in the world, I have bills to pay and am in the red, but I have a home, family and friends who care about me. I have a job, and MTA has allowed me to work for them in a way that can help people. Sometimes people just need a little help." 

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